Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Peculiar Devotion and Hanging Out With Saints

Christos Acheiropoietos--the "Christ 
Not Made by Human Hands"--a Icon
from Novograd (Russia) c. 1100.  The 
Tradition of the Holy Face of Christ is
common in both Eastern and Western 
Christianity and goes far back into the
History of the Church 
My research into the Saint Vincent de Paul Society led me in a direction in which I am surprised to have found myself interested and that is the Cult of the Holy Face.  This refers not to a group of brainwashed people but to a particular devotion; in Catholic terminology “cult” refers to worship or to a particular devotion and this devotion is to the image of the face of the suffering Christ.  The connection with the Saint Vincent de Paul Society is through a man named Leo (or Leon) DuPont.  Leo DuPont (1797-1876) was the son of a wealthy French nobleman who had fled the French Revolution with his family and had come to Martinique.  DuPont was educated in Martinique and the United States before going to Paris to study law.  While in Paris he chose one day to go on an excursion rather than attend Mass for the Holy Day of the Ascension.  The penance given him was to perform some good works.  It was a wise confessor who had him aid the poor rather than simply recite some hail marys and our fathers because he found some satisfaction in aiding the poor and he continued to perform small acts of kindness and generosity towards the less fortunate.  These good works in turn set him on a path of a deepening spirituality as he matured in the balance of prayer and works of charity.  He began to associate with a circle of French working with the poor including Madeline Sophie Barat, the foundress of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (The Madames).
     Finishing his law degree he returned to Martinique and after giving up thought of becoming a priest, married.  The marriage was brief—his wife, Caroline, died after the birth of their daughter, an only child.  DuPont returned to France with his daughter and widowed mother and settled in Tours where he established a successful law practice.  It was here that he joined the Saint Vincent dePaul Society—the link by which I found out about him and his devotion.  DuPont assisted Jeanne Jugan, the foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, in establishing a residence in Tours to take care of the sick poor.  This guy really liked to hang out with saints.  In addition to Madeline Sophie Barat and Jeanne Jugan, both now canonized, his circle of friends and associates included Jean-Marie Vianney (the Curé of Ars), and Peter Julian Eymard.  Of course all these people were priests and religious so they eventually got canonized whereas DuPont, a layman, still awaits recognition.  O well, it just shows to go ya’ that sometimes the least are still least in the kingdom of heaven; but history isn’t over yet, so perhaps Leo will get his halo someday too.  But back to the story.
     DuPont, all this time practicing law and making money—which he kept giving away to charities—also hung out at the Carmel of Tours where a nun, Sister Marie de Saint Pierre, was reported having visions encouraging devotion to the “Holy Face of Jesus”—the image of the face of Christ suffering on his way to the Cross.  This image is most often connected to an image of Christ left imprinted on the veil with which Saint Veronica allegedly wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary.     DuPont really got into this devotion.  He hung a picture of the face of Christ in his dining room where he prayed for hours each day and where he kept a candle constantly burning.  In addition to his many works on behalf of the poor, DuPont encouraged others to join him in devotion of the Face of the Suffering Christ. 
      Now for the personal side of this story and why I became fascinated by it.  Two reasons.  About twelve years ago the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a nineteenth century French Carmelite nun who is a very popular Catholic saint, were brought to the United States.   Thérèse’s name in religion was Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face and she had a great devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus.  Indeed in her monastery in Normandy, there was a picture of the face of the suffering Christ which she loved very dearly and  before which she would meditate on the sufferings of Christ.  After her death, the nuns gave the picture to Pope Leo XIII who had just recently (1895) approved devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus.  Well, you know the last thing a pope needs is more art, especially some rather mediocre (at best) engraving and so Leo regifted it (my friends criticize me for regifting but hey, look people like Leo XIII did it all the time) to a parish in southern Maryland that was the first (and I believe only) Church in the United States dedicated to the Holy Face.  When the relics of Saint Thérèse were brought to the Carmelite Monastery at Port Tobacco, the parish sent the painting there on loan, reuniting Thérèse (or what is left of her) with her beloved picture.  I have always liked Thérèse because she was devout but not pious and appreciated the sort of irony about things religious that I have always liked.  Of course, that makes her devotion to this particular picture somewhat hard to explain.  But let us move on.xxxI also knew another Carmelite, an Italian Friar, Father Riccardo Palazzi.  He was a very talented graphic artist and somewhat of a bon-vivant (which is why we were friends, both of us appreciating good food and good wine and lots of laughter) until he was struck with Guillain–Barré syndrome.  A misdiagnosis and alcoholic anesthesiologist left him quadriplegic.   Undaunted by tragedy he learned how to operate his computer via a breath-controlled mouse and resumed his work.  His bon-vivant days were over,  however, and he attained a rather remarkable perspicacity for one who in his halcyon years had been somewhat shallow. Shortly before he died he gave a remarkable talk at a conference for people who, like himself, were suffering from great disabilities.  It was a meditation on the suffering of Christ and how in the suffering face of Jesus can be seen the suffering faces of the millions who stumble beneath the weight of the cross in their own lives. It was a profound meditation.  I wish it were translated into English.  And this is what gives devotions, authentic devotions, crediblity. =
     For too many people they have, or claim to have great devotion to the Eucharist or to Our Lady or to some mystery of the faith and they wrap themselves up in a cocoon of piety and sweet dedication.  But authentic devotion always—ALWAYS—brings us to see Christ in the least of his sisters and brothers and to move us to works of charity.  Prayer that ends before the tabernacle or crucifix is no more than a form of idolatry.  Leo DuPont is the example of a Christian who knows that the Love for Christ must resolve itself in the hands on action for the least of his sisters and brothers.  I have to see if I can find a decent icon of the Holy Face and a candle to burn before it.  

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